Sunset Overdrive Review – Alive And Amplified

Developed by Insomniac Games. Published by Microsoft. Released October 28, 2014. Available on Xbox One.


Comedy in games is apparently difficult to pull off, given the sheer number of them that have tried and failed. Even tougher, apparently, is the idea of a game that knows it’s a game, and breaks the fourth wall to “hilariously” point out gaming’s tropes and stereotypes. Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard was a noble but failed attempt, while The Simpsons Game used the premise of “we know games can have lazy design” as a limp excuse to be lazily designed. Done wrong, these sorts of games can come across as cynical, rather than a joshing celebration of interactive entertainment.

Sunset Overdrive comes closer to nailing it than perhaps any other videogame, thanks in part to it concentrating on being a good game before making fun of games overall, then going to town on the jokes. Stripped of its attitude, Insomniac Games’ latest offering is still a rapid-fire action game with lots of toys to play with and a focus on fun. The fact it successfully adds a thick layer of self-aware humor on top of everything is a welcome bonus.

Well, a sometimes welcome bonus.

This is an in-your-face, excessively loud, shamelessly gaudy power fantasy, and it knows it. While such a premise is ripe for laughs and self-deprecating gags, it also runs the risk of growing genuinely obnoxious. At times, Sunset Overdrive feels like too much, a game that never stops being “zany” long enough for the audience to have a breather. At other times, the jokes are too desperate to maintain an “edgy” style, and so we have a gun shaped like a dick and balls, or a man with no arms and legs … and that’s the joke.

Other times, we get to see genuine cleverness married to a wry observation of videogame design. The nameless protagonist makes fun of NPCs that magically disappear after cutscenes end, or smugly informs allies that even if they die, he/she will be fine and “Just respawn over there somewhere.” The self-aware banter is woven so casually into the script that it works a lot better than it should, and once the hero starts complaining about NeoGAF tearing the game apart, you know you’re in a world crafted by people who love games maybe a bit too much.

For all its Brechtian shenanigans, there is a loose plot draped over the nonsense, as a player-created character unites various factions around Sunset City in the wake of an apocalypse. A new FizzCo drink, Overcharge Delirium XT, has turned most of the citizens into eyeless, murderous mutants, and players will need the help of eccentric survivors in order to skip town safely. As with the gags, the story is very much a hit-and-miss affair, with the plot playing for time in places, and a fair bit of insufferably “wacky” voice acting popping in to scratch at one’s eardrums. Countering that, we have a delightful antagonist in FizzCo’s mascot, the goofy-yet-murderous Fizzie, and it’s nice to see an army of rampaging mutant monsters that aren’t zombies, even if the regular “OD” creatures are pretty zombie-like in their behavior.

Though the world may have gone to carbonated hell, Sunset Overdrive is all about putting fun first. Insomniac takes the crazy weapons (and weapon wheel) from its Ratchet & Clank games, adding even more ludicrous guns to the arsenal. There are a few standard armaments such as the “Dirty Harry” revolver and a generic assault rifle, but the main focus is on automated toy helicopters that provide support fire, explosive teddy bear launchers, electrical laser beams, and firework-spewing machine guns. Weaponry is divided into single-shot, rapid-fire, and deployable categories, and each gun type contains a wealth of inherently silly – as well as vastly entertaining – offense.

Combat abilities are improved by the use of Amps, upgrades that are equipped to both weapons and the player character. Amps range from the simple – setting targets on fire or freezing them – to the highly irregular – summoning the Grim Reaper on a successful kill, or turning an enemy corpse into a huge nuclear explosion. Amps aren’t just automatically triggered, however. They only kick in once the player’s “style” meter has met certain milestones, and it’s this need to keep up a stylish performance that informs the pace and structure of fighting, as well as simply traversing through Sunset City.

The city is full of objects that can be bounced on, alongside rails and power cables that the protagonist grinds along with inhuman skill. By bouncing and grinding, running on walls, skidding across watery surfaces, and swinging from poles, players build up their style meter, which in turn triggers amps. Killing enemies while maintaining style builds it further, and so players are encouraged to never stop moving, constantly switching their behavior to keep that meter building. It’s not enough to simply glide on a cable and shoot. To get those amps running consistently, one has to be jumping from car roofs, skidding along building gutters, and sliding on railings, all while still letting the bullets (or harpoons, or hairspray cans) fly at monsters, Scab gang members, and FizzCo robots.

As one might expect, urban warfare in Overdrive is an intensely chaotic affair, and it can be hard to keep track of targets while having to jump and dash all over the place. There is a very generous lock-on feature to assist with this, meaning you only really ever have to be looking in the vague direction of an enemy to hit it. While at first this may seem too forgiving, one soon learns to appreciate just how important it is. It also won’t help you avoid the various bombs, leaping attacks, and sticky obstacles that the OD start employing against you as the game progresses.

Making use of the protagonist’s improbable parkour skills takes a little getting used to. Bouncing from objects is as simple as landing on something (almost anything), while grinding is activated by pressing X near a relevant stretch of track. Likewise, wall running and pole-swinging are all activated by the same button in contextual circumstances, and one can gain a speed boost by hitting the right bumper. As with similar games, where many actions are used for a single button, Sunset Overdrive can confuse itself at times, especially since the environment is so thoroughly littered with parkour-friendly objects. You can’t move for power cables and bouncy air ducts, and while that means you’re always rich in options, it also means that the game sometimes disagrees with you about where you intended your character to go. Keeping a handle on all of one’s traversal options can be tricky enough, but having the avatar grab a cable instead of the traffic light you wanted is an added layer of aggravation.

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Missions generally involve going from place to place destroying stuff, picking up items, and generally causing havoc, though a few more involved tasks sometimes occur. Night Defense missions are undertaken in order to gain powerful new Amps, and involve protecting vats of specially produced Overcharge from incoming waves of OD. One can lay down a number of traps, Tower Defense style, in order to better protect one’s perimeters, though the player will still need to dash and leap all around the base, dealing with mutant hotspots and taking out especially troubling OD, such as the gigantic Herkers or projectile-spewing Blowers.

Boss encounters are rare, but cleverly designed, often taking the shape of environmental challenges involving grinding one’s way to a weak point. The city is also full of toilet paper, neon signs, stinky trainers, and security cameras, all of which must be collected as ingredients for new Amps. It all makes sense because of some reasons.

Character customization is a big part of the experience, with new clothing and body art unlocked throughout the campaign. Interestingly, players can change their physical attributes, including their sex, at any time, allowing for a truly flexible personalization. While you can’t exactly sculpt your avatar to specific standards, there are enough preset faces and adornments to give you a good scope of options, so you can be a guy with neon hair, alien eyes, jester boots, and a miniskirt if you so desire. And I do desire.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with Sunset Overdrive, though at times I found the non-stop action to be a little more limited than it would first appear. For a start, not all weapons are created equal, and when you find the few that work for you, you won’t want to waste your time trying to upgrade or amplify anything else. The fact that ammo runs out quickly can also be a pain, because even though it drops plentifully enough, the return rate’s been designed to make you constantly access your weapon wheel, which will take you out of the game a lot unless you mind tapping a button and simply grabbing the next available gun in your selection. It also takes a long time to feel like you’re getting any useful Amps, especially since collect-a-thon quests are constantly required produce more of them, leading to a slow, stunted feed of fresh enhancements.

One thing that works quite well, however, are “Overdrive” upgrades. These are little perks that can be slotted onto the character and directly enhance skills based on gameplay. Unlocking and upgrading Overdrives requires one to spend badges, which are awarded to the player by performing certain tasks. You kill a lot of OD, you’ll get an OD Killer badge. You run along the wall enough times, you get a Wall Runner badge. These badges are then spent on specific Overdrives, meaning that someone who uses rapid-fire weapons a lot will get access to Overdrives that strengthen that specific weapon type, while those who spend a lot of time killing FizzCo robots can get Overdrives based on killing them better. The more you do a thing, the better you can get at it, though variety in gameplay is encouraged in such a way that it’s hard to feel like you’re specializing in many directions. Even so, I love an upgrade system that passively tailors itself to particular playstyles, and Badges are a fun way to encourage that feeling.

By accessing various stations dotted around the city, one can jump into a multiplayer mode on a whim. Online co-op consists of undertaking various missions across the city, earning points for each successful task completed. As you destroy Scab bases, grab points in parkour missions, and take down FizzCo robots, you build up meters that raise “Chaos” and the strength of the team’s Night Defense traps, all leading up to a gigantic defense mission against an entire army of enemy creatures. With up to eight players partaking, and a number of OD more than equal to the resistance, these finales are absolute anarchy, and can be a lot of fun. While it’s a bit of a tacked on extra, it works quite well, and is a great way to level up weapons and earn extra currency for equipment purchases.

Being an audacious comedy game, Sunset Overdrive is sometimes overbearingly exaggerated in the presentation department. Almost as if to undo the generic drabness of Insomniac’s last game, Fuse – dialog in Sunset even makes fun of the kind of focus testing that killed that particular title – everything is colorful and magnified to the point of garishness. Sunset City is full of orange, yellow, blue, and anything else that might visually clash, while animations are as cartoony and slapstick-friendly as possible. Even dying leads to one of several over-the-top respawn animations, while there are only a handful of weapons that won’t lead to explosions, fireworks, or some other form of comic silliness. Oh, and the more “usual” weapons can always be made crazier with an appropriately nonsensical Amp.

The yelling voice actors and constant stream of clanging pop rock ensure things never slow down, and as I’ve already suggested, the constant assault on the ears and eyes is not always welcome. By never letting the player come down, the consistent fever pitch runs the risk of grinding a player down to the raw nerves, or at the very least desensitize the audience into not caring. At times I let swathes of the game’s content wash over me, because there was no other way to process it than sit there and let Sunset‘s brand of humor beat you over the head.

As domineering as the game’s outrageousness can get, however, at least it’s not another po-faced shooter that takes itself too seriously and checks all the usual, mundane boxes. It seems increasingly rare to see a console game – much less a combat-heavy one – that allows itself to be colorful, carefree, and funny, and I find it hard to disrespect that. While there’s obviously plenty of room for your grim, dark, militarized war games, it’s refreshing to see something so irreverent, bright, and silly. Maybe Insomniac overdid it in the screwball department, but I’ll take that over another Fuse. Just make sure you don’t “OD” on all the lunacy.

Bottom Line: While its commitment to madness can be maddening itself, Sunset Overdrive is an energetic, fun-focused adventure. The jokes don’t always hit home, but this is a game that loves being a game, and you can’t hate that sort of honesty.

Recommendation: Would you like to play Lady Gaga in videogame form? This is about as close as you’re getting.


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